Trust me, I'm a TV celebrity


The arrest of Wanna Marchi, an Italian TV personality who once sold 'tummy melter' dieting cream, has lifted the lid on a multimillion-euro scam involving black magic and witchcraft, writes Paddy Agnew

It all began when Fosca Marcon, a pensioner, received a surprise phone call one afternoon last autumn. She had already noticed the unfamiliar number on her telephone display, noting that the mystery caller had tried to ring her repeatedly.

The caller said she was ringing on behalf of the celebrated television saleswoman Wanna Marchi, and wanted to tell her that Marchi had had a dream about Signora Marcon. Marchi was sure that if Signora Marcon chose to play the numbers she suggested in the state lottery, then she would become an overnight millionaire. And, for just €150, Wanna would send her the numbers by express post. (Why Marchi did not just play the numbers herself and make herself a millionaire, rather than sharing her numerical insights, seems to have been a question not everyone was smart enough to ask.)

Signora Marcon said no thank you and hung up, albeit with some difficulty. When Marchi's people rang back the next day, Signora Marcon's son, Filippo, had an idea. On an impulse, he e-mailed details of the phone calls to Striscia La Notizia, a popular satirical programme on Cannale 5, a station owned by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister.

From then on, unknown to her, Marchi's star was in the descendant. The e-mail prompted Striscia La Notizia to record Signora Marcon's subsequent dealings with the Marchi organisation, thus setting up a de facto entrapment that lifted the lid on a scam that reportedly earned Marchi €32 million between 1996 and 2001. A fortnight ago, 59-year-old Marchi, her 37-year-old daughter, Stefania, and three employees of her company, Asciè, were arrested on charges of fraud and extortion.

When Signora Marcon paid her €150, she received a package containing not just the promised "winning" lottery numbers, but also some "magic" salts in a small, sealed plastic bag.

Before playing her lottery numbers, she was told to put the salts in a glass of water and leave them in a dark place for a week.

Having dealt with the salts as ordered, Signora Marcon then played the recommended lottery numbers twice - and, surprise, surprise, won nothing. Feigning anger and disappointment for the benefit of the television microphones, she rang back to complain.

She was passed on to an "expert" who feigned incredulity that she had won nothing. The expert then asked her to go and check out the salts in the glass. "Have the salts dissolved?" asked the expert. "No? Oh dear. This is bad, very bad. Some serious black magic is working against you, signora."

Some days later, one of Marchi's assistants - there were 40 of them in the organisation - rang back to tell Signora Marcon that she had some good news. Marchi's in-house "wizard", a Brazilian called Mario Pacheo do Nascimento, had taken her case to heart and, if she were willing to part with just €2,000, he would be able to prescribe medicine to drive away the "evil eye".

The phone operator omitted to say that "Mago do Nascimento" was, in fact, Marchi's 39-year-old butler-cum-cook- cum-chauffeur. When, after another few days, Signora Marcon declined to hand over the €2,000, a furious Stefania Marchi came on the line in a threatening tone, wishing her "all the evil in the world" and adding, charitably, that "you'll never sleep another wink as long as you live".

When the transactions were broadcast on Striscia La Notizia, in December, Italy's tax police began to delve into Marchi's finances, initiating an investigation that led to her arrest just as she was allegedly about to escape to Spain.

Since her arrest, police have been inundated with inf- ormation about the Marchi organisation.

A familiar face on Italian television, Marchi became well known in the 1980s, when she sold cosmetics, natural products and a dubious dieting cream, called "tummy melter", on a variety of local television channels.

The tax police have long been familiar with her; she was arrested on charges of fraudulent bankruptcy in 1990, in relation to her television-sales work.

Her most recent arrest has lifted the lid on some heart-rending tales. Aiming her pitch at a less well-off, less educated, often older section of the population - police have found records of 305,964 clients - Marchi and her associates were able to intimidate people, most of them women, to hand over family fortunes for fictitious cures against "black magic", "the evil eye" and so on.

Marchi's secretary, Emilia Beniamino, has allegedly told investigators of two payments from elderly women of €516,000 and €413,000, which bankrupted their families. Other witnesses have spoken of threats to their children, of having to prostitute themselves to make the payments, of having to resort to loan sharks.

Investigators are trying to track down the estimated €32 million that Marchi accumulated. With the exception of substantial properties outside Imola, in Piedmont, on Lake Como and in Madrid, the rest of the Marchi fortune appears to have disappeared.

Police believe that some, if not all, of the money has found its way into the tiny fiscal paradise and independent republic of San Marino. Also "disappeared" is the "Mago do Nascimento" whose sixth sense seems to have alerted him as to when to leave.

Even if, threats notwithstanding, Fosca Marcon has been sleeping soundly since her encounter with Marchi, not everyone has been so lucky. Marchi's victims were usually a bit gullible, often desperate. (Her operators had instructions to focus on clients likely to prove susceptible for economic or emotional reasons.) What they all had in common was the harmless wish to become a lottery millionaire, allied to a deep-rooted, very Mediterranean belief in sorcery. In the cynical modern world, such beliefs can cost you dear.